2010 UCLA Preview – Defense
UCLA PK Kai Forbath
CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - UCLA Bruin Defense
Preview 2010 - Defense
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What you need to know: After losing four all-stars to the NFL, UCLA finds itself looking to replenish with the help of Rick Neuheisel’s first three recruiting classes. The Bruins have done an outstanding job of attracting talent, but getting those underclassmen game-ready is an entirely different challenge. The encouraging news is that the program has a budding star at each level of the D. In DE Datone Jones, LB Akeem Ayers, and FS Rahim Moore, UCLA has three marquee juniors, who are all coming off breakthrough campaigns. With continued development, each of them is talented enough to use 2010 as a launching point to early entry into the NFL. Help is needed in the middle of the front seven and at cornerback, putting DT David Carter, LB Steve Sloan, and Aaron Hester under the microscope during the offseason.
Star of the defense: Junior LB Akeem Ayers
Tackles: Akeem Ayers, 75
Sacks: Akeem Ayers, 6
Interceptions: Rahim Moore, 10
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DT David Carter
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Aaron Hester
Best pro prospect: Junior FS Rahim Moore
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Moore, 2) Ayers, 3) Junior DE Datone Jones
Strength of the defense: Backfield pressure, the safeties, red zone defense, creating turnovers
Weakness of the defense: Proven tackles, youth at cornerback, run defense
Projected Starters: The situation up front wouldn’t have been so dire had Brian Price returned for his final year, but he’s off to the NFL leaving UCLA with three starters to replace. The lone returner is 6-4, 267-pound junior
Datone Jones, who figures to be the new leader of this group. One of the school’s top recruits of 2008, he broke out a year ago with 30 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and four sacks. He’s gotten considerably bigger and stronger since arriving, allowing him to use more bull rushes to get into the backfield.
After redshirting in his first season, 6-2, 243-pound Keenan Graham is preparing to make a push for the other opening at defensive end. While raw and clearly inexperienced, he has the quick-twitch athleticism to get off the snap in a hurry and get around the tackle before he gets out of his stance. He has a lot of work to do in order to maintain this spot, but at worst will be a situational rusher and a key part of the future.
The most experienced holdover among the tackles is 6-5, 292-pound senior
David Carter, a letterwinner in each of the last two seasons. As a key reserve a year ago, he chipped in with nine tackles and a pair of sacks, and has spent the offseason preparing for the biggest role of his career. He has ideal size and does a nice job of holding blocks, but will be asked to shoot the gap and make more stops in 2010.
The Bruins are moving former tight end and offensive tackle Nate Chandler to defense in the hopes that he can help shore up the interior of the line. The 6-5, 291-pound junior is a better athlete than his size might indicate, and has the nasty streak to be a good fit of defense if he can learn the nuances of the position.
Projected Top Reserves: After playing well as a reserve defensive end last season, 6-3, 270-pound sophomore
Damien Holmes is set to do more than just reprise that role this fall. He hopes to start opposite Jones. He appeared in 13 games, making 11 tackles and three tackles for loss, showing good quickness going up and down the line and enough strength to move inside if needed.
The Bruins are cautiously optimistic that 6-4, 289-pound junior DT Justin Edison
can become more of an impact player now that he’s entering his fourth year in the program. After having a few cameos in six games on defense and special teams, he’ll be needed to push the starters and give them occasional breathers as a part of the rotation.
Watch Out For .... senior DE Reginald Stokes. He’s the type of fifth-year player, who’s capable of challenging for a starting job and providing much-needed veteran depth on the outside. Unfortunately, he’s recovering from knee surgery and missed the spring, making his rehabilitation a hot topic in the summer months.
Strength: The future. Rick Neuheisel and his staff have recruited this position exceedingly well, scoring building blocks, like Graham, Holmes, and recent blue-chippers
Cassius Marsh and Owamagbe Odighizuwa, to ensure that any dip in overall production doesn’t last too long.
Weakness: The interior. The early departure of Price leaves a gaping void that’ll be impossible to fill this quickly. Even when he was still in Westwood, UCLA had lapses in run defense, which will heap pressure on Carter, Chandler, and the rest of the unproven tackles to pick up the slack and seal off running lanes.
Outlook: This is a potential red flag if for some reason Carter doesn’t flourish as a starter and Jones can’t handle the pressure of being the new cover boy up front. They should be fine, but the supporting
cast is questionable and the young kids will be given every opportunity to scale the depth chart.
Projected Starters: Without much notice outside Los Angeles, UCLA is developing a budding superstar at strongside linebacker. Don’t be fooled by a mere All-Pac-10 honorable mention a year ago. Junior
Akeem Ayers is ready to hit the tarmac. He erupted in his debut as a full-timer, making 75 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, four picks, four forced fumbles, and scoring three touchdowns. The definition of a playmaker, he’s uncommonly agile for a 6-4, 254-pounder and versatile enough to rush the passer and be used in a variety of different ways.
The toughest assignment belongs to 6-4, 232-pound junior Steve Sloan, who’s first in line to replace all-star Reggie Carter on the inside. After injuries forced him on the field for nine starts in 2008, he regressed to being primarily on special teams a year ago. A tough and physical defender, he has the instincts for the position and the passion to get in the mix after being idle for so much of 2009.
At weakside, the Bruins could turn to 5-11, 216-pound junior Sean Westgate as a possible replacement for Kyle Bosworth. An outstanding special teams performer, he’s made 18 tackles in each of his first two seasons, playing with reckless abandon and a contagious desire to hit the man with the ball. Undersized, the staff needs to guard against him being exposed, especially in coverage situations.
Projected Top Reserves: Underclassmen figure to dominate the second and third teams at linebackers. Trying to make sure Sloan doesn’t get too comfortable in the middle will be redshirt freshmen
Patrick Larimore and Todd Golper from the 2009 recruiting class. At 6-3 and 250 pounds, Larimore has much better size for the position, can really stick, and is coming off a solid year on the scout team.
Golper, while more heralded coming out of high school, only goes 6-0 and 231 pounds, and has slipped behind in the race for more playing time this fall. He still has a bright future as a Bruin, but it might take a while before he becomes an every-down player.
In order to address a shortage of proven players at the position, UCLA is moving 6-4, 216-pound junior Glenn Love from safety to outside linebacker. He’ll have weight to add, but he’s a terrific all-around athlete and has two seasons of valuable experience, making 27 tackles on defense and special teams last season. Don’t be shocked if he’s in the opening day lineup at weakside.
Watch Out For .... Ayers to blow up. Yeah, he’s still out of position at times, but he’s a physical anomaly, blending incredible closing speed and leaping ability in the frame of a defensive end. The Bruins will use him liberally and creatively, putting him in a position to make a ton of big plays in a national breakthrough year.
Strength: Range. From top to bottom, UCLA has a bunch of linebackers, who can cover ground like oversized defensive backs. Although it all starts with Ayers, he’s hardly alone. The Bruins have been recruiting great athletes at this position for years, and moving Love from the defensive backfield only ramps up the quotient.
Weakness: Proven players after Ayers. At least for now, it’s Ayers and a bunch of hopefuls, with modest experience. Two very productive starters are gone, leaving behind loads of question marks and uncertainty that could take a while to shake out.
Outlook: Ayers is exceptional, and the exception on a unit that’s lacking starting experience and proven playmakers. The key player will be Sloan, who needs to solidify the middle and develop into a stopper in run defense. Considering some of the concerns at defensive tackle, he has to be a rock on the second line of defense.
Projected Starters: The secondary loses just one starter, but it’s a big one, all-star CB Alterraun Verner. Hoping to fill his shoes will be 6-1, 207-pound sophomore
Aaron Hester, who won the job last summer, but broke his leg in the opener and never returned to full strength. Purely in terms of physical ability, he has the size and the speed to become the team’s top cover corner, needing to fine-tune his game and do a little less grabbing when the ball is in the air.
When Hester was injured, it created an opening for 6-2, 171-pound sophomore
Sheldon Price, who went on to start 11 games and make 48 tackles in his first season on campus. Although he sank at times in the deep end in the water, he also improved as the season progressed and earned an unexpected full season of experience. He’s added some much-needed weight to prevent getting tossed around and will be far better prepared for the challenge of covering Pac-10 receivers on a weekly basis.
The undisputed leader of this unit is 6-1, 195-pound junior FS Rahim Moore, a returning All-American and a Thorpe Award candidate. A third-year starter, with the ball-hawking skills of an elite cornerback, he had 49 tackles, three tackles for loss, and 10 interceptions, the most by an FBS player since 1993. He has outstanding field awareness and instincts, rarely getting caught out of position or being beaten through the air.
Joining Moore in the secondary for a second straight year at strong safety is 5-11, 206-pound junior Tony Dye. A better run supporter than pass defender at this stage of his career, he was fourth on the team a year ago with 73 tackles, but was quiet when the ball was in the air. He has played some cornerback in the past, which should continue to help his progression.
Projected Top Reserves: Among the backup corners, no one has more experience than junior
Courtney Viney, who has come off the bench for 21 games over the last two years, making 14 stops in 2009. While only 5-8 and 162 pounds, he’s able to overcome a serious size disadvantage with terrific speed, agility, and leaping ability.
It’ll be worth monitoring the development of 6-0, 199-pound sophomore FS
Dalton Hilliard, especially if Moore leaves for the NFL after his junior season. A former high school running back, who appeared in six games last year, he’s had a tremendous offseason in the weight room and is built to deliver punishment and support in run defense.
Watch Out For .... senior Christian Ramirez. In an effort to get the long-time running back on the field, the staff has moved him to safety to see what he can do. At 6-2 and 220 pounds, no one has ever questioned his athleticism, making him an intriguing prospect in his final year.
Strength: The safeties. Arguably the strongest spot on the defense, the Bruins have the luxury of bringing back a pair of starters, one with All-American credentials. If someone, like Hilliard or Ramirez, can fill the gap on the B team, they’ll boast as solid a rotation as any Pac-10 school.
Weakness: Proven corners. While the future is very bright with Hester and Price, the immediate future is going to have occasional potholes. Both of the projected starters are going to be young and raw, which will become more obvious against Jake Locker, Andrew Luck, and some of the league’s better passers.
Outlook: Expect to see both the occasional flashes of brilliance and the flame outs this year, as the Bruins adapt to life without Verner. The safeties will be outstanding, but the cornerbacks are facing a learning curve. If Moore returns for his final year, this collection of sophomores and juniors could be dynamite in 2011.
Projected Starters: If every unit was as efficient as the special teams, UCLA would play more than just regular season games in Pasadena. In senior
Kai Forbath, the Bruins boast one of the nation’s premier placekickers, an All-American and the 2009 Lou Groza Award winner. Accurate from any distance, he’s the school’s best offensive weapon, nailing 72-of-83 career field goals, including 9-of-12 from beyond 50 yards.
Faced with the difficult task of replacing all-star Aaron Perez, sophomore P
Jeff Locke stepped up and exceeded expectations. A semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award and member of the All-Pac-10 second team, he averaged 43.6 yards and often pinned opponents deep in their own territory.
Watch Out For… auditions to take place in the return game. Now that the versatile and dangerous Terrence Austin is gone, UCLA will spend the offseason trying to replace his production on punts and kickoffs. Colorado transfer Josh Smith and sophomore Damien Thigpen are two Bruins who’ll be given a chance to make a mark on special teams.
Strength: Leg strength. Is there a better combination of kickers in the country than Forbath and Locke? It’s doubtful. Both are ultra-consistent and get tremendous leg drive into the ball, making them unsung heroes for the offense and the defense.
Weakness: The coverage teams. While the punt team took a step in the right direction under Frank Gansz, Jr., kickoff coverage remains a sore spot for the special teams. For the second straight year, UCLA ranked 100th or lower, allowing just under 25 yards a kick return.
Outlook: For a team looking to rebuild in so many phases, Forbath and Locke are undisputed luxuries. Forbath is, well, practically a lock whenever he lines for a field goal attempt, and Locke is just getting started as the next big thing in a Bruin punter. If Smith can pick up where he left off in Boulder, this could be America’s best all-around special teams units.